I recently came across a website called “Luthermergent,” which is a discussion community devoted to s0-called “emergent” church and practice in a Lutheran context. Part of the program of “emergent” thought is to try to figure out a new way of being the church in a postmodern world amongst postmodern people. Reading through some of the posts and comments there brought to mind a comment I heard several years ago on the public radio program Speaking of Faith. Host Krista Tippett, in a program on paganism, interviewed Adrian Ivakhiv, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont. He was raised in an Eastern Rite Catholic family, and has become interested in and a scholar of earth-centered pagan religions. During the course of the program, he said something that has since intrigued me:
I would say that religion itself, as we understand it, has undergone a real series of changes, particularly with the Protestant Reformation. And now over the last couple of hundred years, it’s become a matter of belief and assent to a set of doctrines. ‘We believe that this and this happened historically, and therefore, this is what we’re supposed to do’ or ‘We’ll be saved by believing in Christ as our Savior’ or something like that. Whereas in the past, it was more rooted in a set of really, you know, cultural practices that were based in everyday life, that were full of images and symbols and meanings. And that’s the side of Christianity that appealed to me when I was growing up. It was that, you know, the icons and candles and incense and the chants, and that stayed with me. And that’s why, in fact, I did find myself attracted to new religions or to new sorts of things that had that, that allowed you to get into a different state of mind. And Paganism does that, and Pagan festivals in North America, very much so. But also some of these other things, these attempts to revive pre-Christian religions, at least the ones that I find more interesting, are the ones that do that.
It’s very easy to take his point too far. Doctrine was certainly a matter of great consequence for the pre-Reformation Christian church, at least to scholars and elites. And, yet, I think his observation is quite correct. Our thinking of religion as almost exclusively a matter of intellectual assent to certain doctrines is a quite modern one, and like modernity itself, it is a very Western European sort of approach. Perhaps it was partly a push to be modern and rational and leave behind trappings that began to seem superstitious to modern minds. We may still have a few vestiges of such practices left, a prayer before a meal, perhaps, but by and large, our faith and religious life is not particularly marked by habits of religious and devotional significance.
As our understanding or religion has moved in this direction, have we not lost something? And isn’t that something rather important? At the very least, such an approach to religion and faith goes a great deal toward compartmentalizing religion into a personal and private sphere, disconnected with the way we live our lives day in and day out. But to leave it at that is to see only a more superficial and minimalist of effects. The effect of losing these practices is deeper. Centering faith and religion more around various cultural practices and habits to which Ivakhiv refers has an important way of reminding us about the faith, keeping it ever before us, and helping us to structure our lives according to that faith. It invites us to see the world through the lens of our faith and its doctrines, instead of seeing our faith through a largely secular lens imposed (or chosen) from the many available in the world around us.
Jewish religious and cultural traditions and practices, at their best, serve to remind those who practice the Jewish faith of the presence of God and of the covenant between that God and his people. Indeed, that can be seen as the chief purpose of the whole of the Torah. Jewish tradition can see God’s law as a blessing both because it provides structure to a society under which life is possible and can thrive, but also because it organizes life around God’s presence and covenant, and reminds one of the steadfast love of God toward his people. Practices such as the observance of the Sabbath mean many things, but amongst them is that there is a holiness in time, a holiness in creation, and a holiness in the ordinary things around us. Blessing the candles and eating the Sabbath meal weave these things into the regular fabric of life.
One might also look to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, both in the everyday devotional observance by many of the faithful and in terms of the worship life of the church. In a different Speak of Faith program (“Restoring the Senses,” aired April 9, 2009), theologian Vigen Guroian says “Eastern Orthodox theology is less doctrinal [than Western Christianity], more experiential, deeply sacramental.” The church’s liturgy profoundly reminds one of the mysteries of the faith, that there are things and places and times which are holy. They invite the worshiper into an encounter with God. But they are also profoundly sacramental, and thus remain rooted in earth and creation. The sacraments are at the very heart of Orthodox worship, and the celebration of Orthodox liturgies engages all of the human senses. The encounter with the holy, both in that which is set aside and in the ordinary world, is underlined and highlighted. Their worship invites them to participate in a reality that is already here but not yet fully obvious, one in which the new creation is breaking into the current one, and one in which the current one is profoundly connected with the God who created all, even to the point of the creation itself being nearly sacramental. The celebrations of Holy Week and Easter, for example, are not merely about something we remember and commemorate, but are ways in which the worshiper participates in those events. Certainly the sense of the holy and deeply sacramental worship is not unique to the Orthodox tradition, but they offer a different emphasis which is, as Guroian said, less doctrinal and more experiential, giving much greater weight to poetry and metaphor, beauty and images and liturgy.
If indeed Christians in this century need to find different ways of being the church, whatever forms that might take, one of the things that any search for that is going to need to address is this Western tendency to make religion primarily about an assent to specific doctrines. We will need to find ourselves coming to some other understanding of religion and faith. That isn’t to argue that we shouldn’t care about good and correct doctrine, but it is a matter of emphasis. I think many in our churches and in our world long for something more than dry doctrine or mere sentimentality. We need to find ways to start seeing our whole lives and the world around us as a place in which we can (and do) encounter God. We must learn to regard both the ordinary and extraordinary as holy and sacred. This is not a call to superstitious habits, but one might think of it as a desire to re-enchant our world. Not to give up on a scientifically and historically aware view of our world, but to add something to that: a sense of awe and mystery and the sacred. Perhaps one place to start is how we treat worship. Another might be simple physical actions or habits, such as making the sign of the cross, that can carry with them deeper meaning and be a frequent reminder of God and the gracious gifts he freely bestows. However we approach the question, it seems to me that one of the important tasks that leaders in our churches, ordained and lay, need to attend to is that of looking for ways we can more deeply weave our faith and Christ into our daily lives. I think we need to be more conscious about including practices and ways of life that intentionally hold our faith before us, form us, and remind us that we are Christ’s and that this means something for our daily lives and our approach to our neighbors and the world around us. The old Latin saying “lex orandi, lex credendi” (loosely, the law of prayer is the law of faith) is something we might well keep in mind.